Albany Senior High School trip to the 2010 Auckland Readers and Writers Festival
On May 13, a group of students from Albany Senior High School visited the Auckland Readers and Writers Festival. These are notes taken from the awesome presentations from the authors we listened to. I tried to ensure the quotes and paraphrasing are as accurate as possible. The regularly-falling-off 'e' key on my keyboard apologises for any mistakes or misrepresentation.
- 1 John Carey on William Golding and Lord of the Flies
- 2 Charlie Higson – “The Enemy” and author of young James Bond series
- 3 David Levithan on his book “Will Grayson, Will Grayson.”
John Carey on William Golding and Lord of the Flies
Lord of the Flies contributes strongly to all post-apocalyptic literature.
Golding had written three novels to date and sent them off to every publisher he could think of. They all rejected them.
He asked his wife whether she thought it was a good idea for him to write a novel about boys on a desert island. She told him to get on with it. She did a lot to motivate Golding to write.
Carey talked about the novel Coral Island and its idealistic view of human nature and British culture and values. He then pointed out that Lord of the Flies was written in a deliberate contrary position to Coral Sea. The naval officer at the end refers to Coral Island when he's talking to the boys.
Carey suggested that this is the most important part of the novel and pointed out the irony in the officer recognising them as British boys. “I should have thought that a pack of British boys - you are British aren't you? - would have been able to put up a better show than that – I mean - ” but also expressing surprise that they've descended into tribalism. The officer identifies himself as a member of the 'British tribe,' a tribe that has far more destructive capability than the boys and has (in the context of the novel) messed up the world in a nuclear war of some kind. This destructive capability is illustrated in the descriptions of the navy cruiser.
NOTE: Carey actually didn't make this point until later but I've rewritten it up here. There's another version below, closer to what Carey actually said.
In Coral Island, the boys are surrounded by savages – In Lord of the Flies the boys become savages.
In Coral Island the boys are surrounded by pagan gods – in Lord of the Flies the boys invent their own paganism. Pig's head, dances etc.
Jack, the leading choir boy is the one who leads the savagery. Choir boys from Lord of the Flies were based on the choir boys from Salisbury cathedral. The boys there were not as pure and angelic as they seemed, Golding had talked to a guy who had some stuff to do with the choir boys.
Golding wasn't allowed to move into a house close to the cathedral because he'd 'badly let the side down' by the way he depicted the boys in the novel.
Golding and his knowledge of Boys' Aggression
How did Golding know how boys would act in the Lord of the Flies situation? He drew on his experiences in teaching Lol!. He was interested in how boys were aggressive and apparently he used to stir them up. Some ex-students have said that he would deliberately stir up antagonism among the students. He even allegedly took a class out to some historical earth-works and organised the boys into two groups and got them to fight each other.
When the novel came out, people wondered whether boys would actually act this way. Young people represented the future at the end of WWII and many people didn't want to believe Golding's view.
W.H Auden was convinced that Golding's view was inaccurate. He suggested that the older boys would have looked after the younger ones. Golding was cynical about this.
Peter Book (the guy who made the old black and white film) reckons that the only thing Golding got wrong was the amount of time it would take for the boys to kill each other. He said, instead of three months it would only take a weekend. Book said that the same cruelty happened among the cast of the film. The boys apparently were cruel to the actor who played Piggy and said they were going to kill him after Piggy dies in the film because he would no longer be needed for the film.
Lord of the Flies not having women or girls? John Carey (the lecturer) suggests Golding meant that his experiences (with the novel being “an allegory of the human race”) were only with boys/men and only felt like he had the experience to write about boys.
Golding's Wartime Experiences and Man's "Dark Heart"
Golding was also into analysing his own behaviour / nature. He had said that he knew what people were capable of after looking into his own dark heart. Worked on navy destroyers he was eventually put in command of a rocket ship. They were adapted tank landing crafts which had thousands of rockets tubes mounted on the front. They would launch salvos of these rockets onto beaches. A pretty horrific type of ordnance.
He commanded one of these ships at the battle of Walcheren.
( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_the_Scheldt )
This island at the head of the river Scheldt needed to be taken so the allies would use the port at Antwerp in Belgium. Walcheren was taken at great cost. 27 ships, on of which was Golding's. Only 7 ships survived. Many of his friends died. He talked about seeing ships blown up like 'Christmas trees of high explosives.' He also talked about the water being full of dead and dying men.
He said it was a sigh that “dimmed the sunlight.” As well as remembering it as a scene of terror and horror he also recognised his own capacity to enjoy destruction. Saw _____ town/city in flames and later said he was surprised at how little pity he felt when he saw this because he had discovered this aggression in himself. This, in part, allowed him to create the same aggression and appreciation of destruction in the boys in Lord of the Flies.
Golding was an extremely superstitious man. He was courageous in battle but was also terrified. He had to clench his teeth to stop them from chattering. The men on his ship misinterpreted this and thought he was grinning.
This fear went right back to his childhood when he lived in a house that had some parts as old as the 14th century. Golding had nightmares about an old hag in the basement who would slowly advance toward him and he couldn't move or get away. He also thought the graveyard at St Mary's had stretched under the ground into their front lawn and dreamed about coffins under the lawn.
This fear also centred around his mother. A strange lady, when he was three or four and was suffering from a sickness of some kind, he was calling for a light as he was afraid of the dark. The door opened and his mother hurled matches and a candle in the door and slammed it and left. He cowered under his covers until dawn. “This terror that went back to childhood is again what he puts into the boys.”
The beast that comes out at night etc.
Although this may seem absurd to some adults, Golding understood this terror because it had been his own. The appearance of the naval captain at the end is perhaps, the most important part of the novel. As Ralph is running away from the savages, he is suddenly faced with the officer's pristine uniform and the cruiser. “I would have thought that a bunch of Bristish boys would have put up a better show.” Carey claims the naval officer is buying into a form of tribalism without realising it. The British tribe that has virtually destroyed the world in the novel. “You are British aren't you?” The naval officer is just as barbaric as they boys, his weapons have destroyed and are far more destructive than the boys themselves. Certainly an ironic moment!
Lord of the Flies - Religious Allusions and the Original Version
Religious allusions and how the novel that Golding wrote differs from the in-print version
Originally an atheist, Golding became deeply religious after his wartime experiences. Boys at the school where he taught said he would spend hours in silent prayer on his knees. Perhaps he felt some kind of deep remorse and wanted to find a spiritual reality. Simon confronts the pig's head / Lord of the Flies in the novel and is quite clearly a figure that represents Jesus.
In the original manuscript, Simon is much more clearly a Christ figure and when meets another being in the forest which is quite clearly intended to represent God. This being dims Simon's sight; God being invisible in Christianity. They perform a solemn dance that transmits meaning in a way that language can't. Simon becomes wildly happy and runs back to try and convert the other boys. He also develops a kind of halo. Ralph sees it when he looks at Simon. There are lots of references to it in the novel.
Charles Monteith, an editor at Faber & Faber, had seen the potential in Golding's original manuscript even though it had been initially rejected by a reader there. Monteith suggested that all the explicitly religious bits should be cut. In the letters that he exchanged with Golding, he demanded that a whole bunch of stuff was cut. In the end, Golding said if you want to cut any more of Simon, go ahead. Monteith said that Simon could now be appreciated / understood in non-religious ways.
Carey made the point at this stage that without the original version of Simon in the novel, the readings that can be made around religion are rather a lot darker. In the final edition of the novel, religion is all about ignorance and terror. Without the old Simon figure, the novel is very consumable by agnostic readers or readers from different religious and cultural perspectives. Golding very much regretted letting this stuff get cut out later in life. He later said he regretted cutting the divine elements of Simon out of the novel and giving way to Monteith.
Carey made the point though, that if he hadn't of let these parts be cut the novel might have not been as successful. The fact that it doesn't limit itself to one religious viewpoint makes it easier for people to understand from any context.
Some of the questions posed to Carey
NOTE: Although the parts in italics are written in first person, not all of them are exact quotes. Please read them as paraphrasing of Carey's answers.
Has your (religious) world view effected the way that you look at novel?
My own religious viewpoint is agnostic and when I first read Lord of the Flies, not knowing about the original manuscript, I read it as an explanation of how religion came about. Golding was an atheist initially and originally mocked religious beliefs and systems.
The novel still has biblical parallels though?
Ah yes, do you think that you could have suspected that it originally could have been a more religious novel before it was changed?
What biblical parallel are you thinking of?
Little biblical connections. Piggy and thorns, crown of thorns. Man being fallen etc.
Man needing some form of stability.
A very perceptive reading of the novel. What you're saying in effect is that Monteith wasn't able to cut out all the biblical references in the novel.
In religious terms, Roger is portrayed as Satan. Do you think it was Roger who influenced Jack or the other way round?
I'm not sure he was imaged as Satan but I think he might have been the kind of figure Golding thinks of when he said if he'd been German he would have been a Nazi (because of his dark side.) People like Roger (who follow horrific orders without thinking) are needed for autocratic regimes like the nazis to operate.
What flaws do you think they are in the novel and how would you fix them?
I actually think it [The post Monteith changes version] is near perfect. This is because of the writing [style]. [Refers to the part where Piggy is killed]. “The rock struck Piggy a glancing blow from head to toe...” [to the part where Piggy is killed] “stuff came out and turned red.” The writing is thinking just as a young boy would.
Carey also referred to the parts where the parachutist and Simon are carried out to sea.
Took some time to plug his new book. Virus/zombie scenario. London is filled with zombie adults. Anyone older than 15 has turned into a zombie. The protagonists are holed up in a fortified super market.
Kids vs zombies – Kid vs adults.
Decided on a horror style. His three boys are obsessed with zombies. Interesting because: zombies can't be stopped, mindless, just keep coming until they've got you.
Zombies - Real Life Inspiration
Zombies have become very popular in the last few years. Cited Left for Dead - [that's a particularly fantastic multiplayer computer game for all you non-nerds out there.] Considered the lack of moral implications of killing zombies. Good times. “It's interesting to wonder. Why have zombies become so popular over the last while? It's hard to say.”
And of course, vampires have gotten popular lately. Vampires for girls, zombies for boys. Even though vampires looked like teenagers, they've been around for 450 years and are pretty sophisticated. Zombies are great. They are decomposing and gross but you can “splatter them up the wall.
Explored some of the similarities between zombies and vampires. Mentioned Brain Dead – [that's a particularly fantastic, very gory old Peter Jackson film.] “Zombies and vampires are fairly similar.” Discussed the origins of both.
The myth of the vampire started in the Balkans, north of Greece. On the borders of where Europe meets Asia. The region was traditionally cut off from the rest of Europe. In the 18th and 19th century, many European traders and travellers came back from there with folk tales. Many people back then really believed vampires were real. Gave a hypothetical example of people getting sick in a village just after someone else had died. The villagers would get together and blame this on the person they'd just buried. They believed that this person was dragging themselves from the grave and sucking the life force from others at night. People would then exhume the body and try to figure out whether they were a vampire or not. If their hair or fingernails had grown and anything else made it look like they were still active, there were a number of options:
1)Bury them facedown.
2)Bury them deeper.
3)Stake them down, hence the stake through the heart thing.
This all lead to the whole idea of people coming back to life. “Where do you get your ideas from? I nick them off other people. But only steal the best ideas.”
Cites 28 Days Later and I am Legend (the film and the book.) Talks about stealing these ideas. Now working on his 2nd book in the series called “The Dead.”
Zombie Scenarios and Character Development
Did using the mythology of zombies enable you to explore how people interact and relationships?
The non-zombie characters?
The characters have to be “as strong and vivid as possible.” Talked about the issues with the young James Bond and people always knowing he wouldn't die even though it was a wee bit scary. Talked about being interested in characters where some/all would die and the readers wouldn't know who was going to die.
“You've got to care about these characters or you won't care whether they die or not.”
Talked about the fun in his TV work being about inventing characters and making them believable when he plays characters. Says it's the same with writing characters.
Someone asked about when the gore gets too much. He pointed out that anything that gets written in has to work within the world of the novel.
It can't be like “Oh, you just put that in there to grab me.” Quite intense for a kids book. Wasn't sure whether he was going to get complaints. Hasn't had any complaints so far.
“Because I try and bed it in real characters that you care about and an interesting story, as long as you do that, you can get away with quite a lot.”
James Bond and the Young James Bond - Fantasy and Characterisation
Talked about how the Flemming family offered him the chance to write about the young Bond. Had to try and work out who James Bond was. Briefly talked about the irony of a secret agent being really famous. Then went back to talking about who James Bond is again. Made the point that Flemming designed James Bond to be the ultimate fantasy figure.
“He basically lives in hotels, gets to travel around the world and kill people for a job.”
Made the point that we don't know who his family are and where Bond lived as a child etc. The Flemming family said he needed to stay within the details that Flemming originally laid out. He re-read all the Bond books and found there wasn't much information. Mentions in You Only Live Once when they think Bond is dead and gives some details in his obituary. The other piece of information he found was that Bond went to Eaton.
“The rest of it was up to me to make up.”
Talked about how in James' first day at school he wanted Bond to be just like any other kid and over the course of the five books he would make him develop into the Bond we know. Toughens up becomes cynical and learns the skills he needs to do what he does. Can makes friends, even though he's a loner, has a great sense of adventure and a strong sense of what's right and wrong.
It goes back to where we get our ideas from. We take them from all around, put them together and hope it works. Mentioned the difficulty of writing about a character when people already have their own ideas of what he's like.
Question about how he chose the setting. Talked about post WWII setting, rationing etc.
“It was a very dull, grey time in Britain.”
Talked about how Flemming invented a character that could do what most people in Britain couldn't do at that time. Hence why Bond ends up doing all this great stuff. Contributes the whole fantasy figure thing.
The first book I set in Scotland. We find out from the obituary than one of this parent's comes from Scotland. He thought it would be good to send Bond back to his roots in the first book. Liked the idea of the Scottish highlands, castles etc.
In the second book he decided it needed to be somewhere hot and exotic. Sardinia seemed like a good option. Also somewhere people didn't know much about.
Then, in the third book went for a more urban setting in London and “having done that, let's send him to Mexico.” (fourth book?). Then in the fifth book, he went for skiing in the Austrian alps. Apparently Flemming did a lot of skiing.
I was trying to make each book have it's own character but be different from the others. Also, to keep with the normal Bond style of exotic and interesting locations.
Slow Zombies vs Fast Zombies
A question about whether the zombies in his new book are slow or fast. Said he likes the slow ones better. If they're fast, “it's just like they're a psycho trying to chase you... I very much think zombies have to be slow or they're somehow not as scary as they could be.”
Talked about the original Frankenstein film with Boris Karlov and his shuffling gait. Karlov used it again when he played the mummy a few years later and it's become the classic zombie, living dead, shuffling, slow-walk style.
Back to fast zombie thing - “If you're just running around, then you're just an idiot. Like someone who's had too much Coca Cola.”
Someone asked a question about the “The Enemy” series and whether kids turn to zombies after then turn 15. Higson makes the point about 3rd person limiting the view of the readers the same way the characters in the book are limited. Doesn't answer the question about the virus though because there's a cliff-hanger at the end of the first book with one of the characters who doesn't know what's going to happen to him when he turns 15.
Talks about how the things that you thought were totally awesome will probably stay with you when you get older. Cites an example of (You Only Live Once?) of one of the Bond films that really stuck with him because of where he was at.
Someone asked a question about why Bond doesn't die. Higson mentioned that although Harry Potter has made more money because film tickets are more expensive, more people have seen the Bond films. When Thunderball came out, one in three people had seen it in Britain. He re-iterated his earlier point about Bond being a fantasy figure.
Question: I think it's a bit ironic in your book how you say children rely on adults but they're the ones killing the children in the book.
Pointed out the bad publicity/press about teenagers being bad recently being mostly rubbish. Suggested that much of the bad stuff that happens is mostly caused by adults. Talked about groups of working together and helping each other out.
Said that is the message of the book, that teenagers are OK and together they can survive and they can be strong. Contrasted the message of his book to LOTF again.
On Planning Novels
In answer to another question, pointed out how all writers work differently. Gave hypothetical examples of writers who plan it all out and others who plan very little.
“If I've planned it all out, there's nothing for me to discover as I go along.” Says he plans out the key characters and a few key events, then sees where the story goes. He found that not having a use for some characters led to them getting killed of in “The Enemy.” Used the metaphor of a paining where you put out a whole bunch of colours but don't necessarily use them.
Talked about how he rewrites parts of the books. Renaming characters etc. changing events. Said he was somewhere in the middle in terms of exhaustive planing and minimal planning and through the process of writing, lets it form itself.
In answer to another question, talked about his acting work helps him when he gets characters to speak their own lines. Even if it's only in your head, it can still help. Goes back to the archetypes of Greek mythology heroes. Mentioned Homer and Ulysses and all the different types of heroes in Homer. Vain heroes, stupid heroes. Those types of characters have been used a lot.
Final advice for aspiring writers: “Read a lot, act out your characters and steal them from good writers.”
David Levithan on his book “Will Grayson, Will Grayson.”
Talked about a guy who went to the same school as him who had a very similar name. This other guy is a great dancer and people used to regularly confuse them. This gave him the inspiration for “Will Grayson, Will Grayson.” Both characters meet in the middle. Like an X.
Talked about the Will Grayson character that he wrote about. The novel is co-authored by another writer (John Green) who wrote about the other Will Grayson. He read an excerpt from the fourth chapter of the novel.
“I am at work at CBS, shelving metamucil in aisle 6....”
“Moira is the kind of friend who I like to discuss doomsday scenarios with but she's not the kind of person that makes me want to stop doomsday from occurring.” - This quote isn't quite totally accurate btw.
Excerpt is about Will Grayson and his online boyfriend Issac. It considers (among other things) how relationships in words are different from face to face relationships.
Question about whether he draws from personal experiences for the novel.
He talks about how it is built from personal experiences but that neither of the characters are either David Levithan or the co-author. He talks about IMs/Will's world and how you have to make a choice. Are you going to be truthful or are you going to lie? One of the challenges of online relationships.
“Most of the truths in the novel, we discovered as we were writing it.”
Two questions: Is there a recommended age for them and is that an ipad you're using?
2)“It really, it's like, thirteen and up.” Talked about how he's lucky that he gets readership from adults and young people. Talked about how he mostly writes for his friends, some of which are teenagers but he believes the best books for young people aren't necessarily written specifically in a way that tailors for young people. He's also an editor.
A question on gay characters. He talked about how he tries to make his gay characters as well-rounded and representative of the full spectrum of individuals as possible. Talked about writing characters who aren't defined by one aspect of their personality. Gave the example of Will who isn't out at the start of the novel, not because he's ashamed of being gay but rather because he's anti-social.
Another question on provocative content, “especially from a teenaged NZer POV.” Asked about proving something with his novels. Answered by talking about his opinion that writing a novel with a deliberate message being problematic. Talked about swear words in novels and the difference in emphasis and emotion.
“It's really about using the language and interrogating the language... What is the power dynamic behind that word?” Also explained that using swear words is more about whether it fits the character and their present situation that the appropriateness of it in terms of readers.
Question on how he gets his ideas. Explained that sometimes the ideas come from real life and other times, he's not sure where they come from. He said that out of the authors at the festival, he thinks it's about 50/50 with those who plan novels heavily and those who don't.
Question on Tiny Cooper and whether he sprung into existence spontaneously or whether he developed over time. Tiny Cooper being a “very large, very gay” character from “Will Grayson, Will Grayson.” Made an interesting point about people like that soaking up all the energy in a room and how the character did the same for them when they were writing about him.
Question about how he comes up for names for titles. Nick and Nora was a shout out to the series called The Thin Man. Talked about the duality of Will (solid – last will and testament and questioning will you) and his co author chose Grayson (grace, whether you find it outside of you and whether you choose to let it in.
Question about where he got his watch. It's a Chicago themes Swatch. His Mum bought it for him.